• China grows a wide variety of GM plants including GM cotton, GM poplar trees, GM sweet peppers, GM tomatoes, GM papaya, and GM petunia flowers
  • China’s Ministry of Agriculture has not authorized the commercial growing and sale of GM rice, corn, and soybeans, but has issued “safety certificates” to two GM rice varieties and for one GM corn variety that limits cultivation to a certain area for research purposes
  • Reports of illegal GM corn, rice, and soybean cultivation are not uncommon in China and the practice may be widespread


China, a country whose epicenter lies in Beijing (literally “North Capital”), was once a fledging state whose political power shifted quicker than the point of a compass. For the first one thousand years of the Common Era, China’s population fluctuated between 37 million to 60 million, roughly equivalent to the population of today’s California and Italy. The majority of the population lived in northern China, where imperial palaces dotted the landscape and wheat – not rice – fed the local granaries. At the start of the second millennium, a seismic shift took place as China witnessed its first ever sustained population growth, surpassing 100 million by 1100 CE. Thirty years later, China’s imperial capital migrated southward to Hangzhou, a city located in the fertile Yangtze River basin. By the time of the Mongol Invasion of 1276, approximately 66% to 75% of China’s population was living below the Yangtze River. In a matter of 200 years, China’s population had roughly doubled while its center of gravity, both politically and demographically, had migrated south.

The root of this tidal change began innocuously enough with a moderate drought in the lower Yangtze River basin during the early 1000 CE. Worried about a poor harvest, Emperor Zhenzong of the Song Dynasty ordered 30,000 bushels of quick-maturing drought-resistant rice (aka zhancheng, champa) seed from Fujian Province to be planted in the lower basin. This rice variety, originally from southern Vietnam (Cham Kingdom, Mekong Delta River region), could be grown on hillsides and mountain slopes, a unique trait at the time. Prior to Champa rice, Chinese rice cultivation primarily took place in the lowlands and river valleys where seasonal flooding permitted rice cultivation. Champa rice expanded this area of cultivation upland and inspired the water-controlled terrace irrigation system that has now become an iconic symbol of southern Chinese farming. The resultant bumper rice harvests kick-started a population boom that would eventually lead to the North-South migration.

GM Rice & GM Corn

A thousand years after Emperor Zhenzong ushered in a new era of agricultural productivity, research scientists in Fujian Province, the port-of-call for Champa rice, developed Shanyou 63, a hybrid rice variety that has since been genetically modified (GM) to include insect-resistance (e.g. Bacillus thuringiensis or Bt). Bt Shanyou 63, now under the auspices of Huazhong Agricultural University in Hubei Province, has been in commercial limbo since its inception owing to food safety and environmental concerns. In August 2009, China’s Ministry of Agriculture (MOA) tested the waters when it issued safety certificates for the university’s two GM rice varieties (e.g. Shanyou 63 and Huahui-1/TT51-1) in Hubei Province and for Origin Agritech’s (Beijing-based company) GM corn variety (e.g. BVLA430101) in Shandong Province. Safety certification, valid for five years, limits GM cultivation to a single province and for research purposes only (i.e. commercial sale is prohibited). One Chinese research scientists characterized safety certification as being “like admitting a car is safe to drive on the road but not giving it a license plate”. The MOA’s appetite for the trial run did not last long, and roughly two years after issuing the certificates the Ministry made a policy decision not to commercialize GM rice. In the run-up to the certificates expiration, there were reports of illegal GM rice sales and field trials. In July 2014, a lead researcher at Huazhong Agricultural University was suspected of selling GM rice after bags of Shanyou 63-tainted rice were found being sold in local supermarkets. A few weeks later, the university was accused of feeding students GM rice in the school cafeteria. In August 2014, China’s MOA let the safety certificates expire only to quietly re-issue them in January 2015. China appears to be of two minds when it comes to GM rice and corn, but this is not indicative of its view of GM crops as a whole.

GM Cotton

China grows a wide variety of GM plants including GM cotton (e.g. GK12, SGK321). Introduced in 1997 (GK12) and 1999 (SGK321), GM cotton is the most widely cultivated GM crop in China. In 2014, GM cotton was planted on approximately 3.9 million hectares, or roughly 93% of China’s total cotton planting area. Northern China’s Xinjiang Region is the country’s largest cotton grower, accounting for 46% (~1.9 million ha) of cotton farmland and an impressive 60% (3.6 million metric tons) cotton output in 2014. The cultivated GM cotton varieties are similar to Shanyou 63 in that they all three contain an analogous Bt insect resistant trait. This trait, lepidoptera or caterpillar resistance, has subsequently created a void that other insect pests, such as mirid bugs, are rushing to fill. From 1997 to 2010, northern China’s mirid bug population increased 12-fold, threatening GM cotton crops with 50% losses if not properly contained by insecticide, a resource that GM cotton was originally designed to bypass. However, the appearance of new pests has yet to dent harvests volumes. In 2014, thanks in part to improved GM cotton yields, Chinese cotton reserves reached 11 million MTs, equal to roughly half of global cotton trade volumes.

China Cotton GMO Map

GM Poplar

Although not as widely cultivated as GM cotton, GM poplar arguably holds more strategic importance as a guardian against the encroaching Gobi desert in China’s north. In 1978, China launched the Three-North Shelter Forest Program, the world’s largest ecological program that has since been dubbed the “Great Green Wall”. The program, slated to finish in 2050, is a mass afforestation project designed to plant trees along a serpentine route stretching 2,800 miles from Xinjiang to Heilongjiang. If successful, the program would increase the globe’s forest cover by 10% and would help absorb carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. At the vanguard are poplars, which constitute the majority of the program’s planted trees. In 1989, the program suffered a setback when 100,000 ha of poplar hybrid plantations experienced significant defoliation due to attacks by the lepidoptera pests of poplar lopper and gypsy moth. At the same time, China created its first GM poplar by introducing the Bt insect resistant gene into Populus nigra.  In 1998, the Chinese Academy of Forestry was granted permission to cultivate GM Poplar-12, followed by GM Poplar-741 in 2001. In 2002, 1.4 million GM poplars were planted on 300 to 500 ha across Beijing, Jilin, Henan, Shandong, Xinjiang, Shaanxi, and Jiangsu. As of 2014, GM poplar cultivation was estimated at just under 550 ha, which is insignificant when compared to poplar’s total Chinese distribution area of 7.6 million ha (2012 figure). GM poplar figures may be an underestimate since tree plantings, propagation, and nursery transfers are difficult to track in China.

GM Papaya

Officially, the most widely planted edible GM crop that can be purchased at the local Chinese market is GM papaya. China’s GM papaya variety, Huanong No. 1, differs from GM cotton and GM poplar in that it has been modified to be disease-resistant and not insect-resistant. Papaya, primarily grown in southern China, is extremely susceptible to papaya ringspot virus (PRSV) which can have a 100% infection rate within a papaya orchard if not properly contained. Additionally, as a non-staple crop with well-known health and nutritional benefits, the path for approval was not as besieged as with other GM food crops.  In 2006, South China Agricultural University was granted permission to cultivate Huanong No. 1, with initial plantings taking place in Guangdong Province. By 2012, approximately 95% of Guangdong’s papaya production was of the GM variety, with cultivation also expanding into Hainan Island that year. In 2014, cultivation moved into Guangxi Province, bringing the total area of GM papaya production to 8,475 ha. GM papaya is perhaps the most successful GM crop in China in terms of the resultant increased yields, expanded cultivation area, and overall acceptance by consumers.

China Non Cotton GMO Map

GM Tomato and Sweet Pepper

Similar to GM papaya, China cultivates viral-resistant tomatoes and sweet peppers, though the scope and scale of this production is difficult to determine. China’s GM tomato (PK-TM8805R) and GM sweet pepper (PK-SP01) have been modified to resist cucumber mosaic virus (CMV), a widely-distributed disease that can infect 1,200 different plant species. In China, CMV is a ubiquitous threat that has been detected in nearly every province and region. In 1998, Beijing University was granted permission to commercially release GM sweet pepper, followed by its GM tomato variety in 1999. According to China’s National Biosafety Commercial Production Database, both GM crops have been cultivated in Beijing Municipality, and in Fujian and Yunnan Provinces. It’s likely that Fujian has the largest planting area owing to the province’s history of severe CMV outbreaks in its tomato crops. Additionally, a Fujian-based company, Xiamen Bioway Biotech, has been a known supplier of both GM crops, as well as GM petunia flowers. It should be noted that Xiamen Bioway Biotech is a subsidiary of Sinobioway Group, a company that is affiliated with Beijing University. Unfortunately, the exact area of production remains unknown and must be speculated based on secondary information.

GM Petunia Flowers

Little is known about GM petunia-CHS (chalcone synthase) production in China. Beijing University, the developer of China’s GM tomato and sweet pepper varieties, was granted permission in 1998 to commercially release GM petunia-CHS. The petunia had genetically modified flower color (white pigmentation) which was achieved through the plant’s chalcone synthase enzyme. In general, chalcones have anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, anti-tumor and anti-inflammatory properties. In addition, petunias share the same taxonomic family (i.e. Solanaceae) as the commercially important crops of tobacco, potatoes, tomatoes, eggplants, and sweet peppers. Based on the similar releases from Beijing University and its affiliate company, it is probable that GM petunias are cultivated in Beijing Municipality and Fujian Province.

GM Rice (Illegally Distributed)

To date, China’s Ministry of Agriculture has not authorized the commercial growing and sale of GM rice, corn, and soybeans. Despite prohibitions, cultivation does take place and reports of illegal seed sales and detections in Chinese grain exports are not uncommon. In 2004, a year after small experimental GM rice field trials were permitted, GM rice was reportedly being sold by seed stations affiliated with Huazhong Agricultural University in Hubei Province. These illicit sales likely expanded in 2005, as by 2006 the European Union (EU) reported ten detections of Bt Shanyou 63 in rice shipments from China. In 2007, another nine Bt Shanyou 63 detections were reported. By 2008, the EU had had enough and instituted emergency measures in April that severely curtailed Chinese bulk rice imports. Despite a significant drop in rice shipments, the EU detected Bt Shanyou 63 in a poultry feed additive (choline chloride) shipment from China in 2014. Taken as a whole, it’s been well publicized that, in addition to Hubei Province, Bt Shanyou 63 has been sold in the provinces of Hunan, Jiangxi, Zhejiang, Anhui, and Fujian. However its distribution area is likely much larger, as one former China Central Television (CCTV) reporter noted in 2014, GM rice has been “grown in some 20 Chinese provinces”.

GM Corn (Illegally Distributed)

China’s GM corn distribution area is officially confined to Shandong Province as the Beijing-based, NASDAQ-listed, Origin Agritech has secured the sole GM corn safety certificate for its BVLA430101 variety. The variety has been modified to include phytase, an enzyme that allows livestock (e.g. pigs) to absorb more phosphate (necessary for growth) from their feed. Although not designed for direct human consumption, the domestic Chinese market remains closed and in late 2015 the company announced plans to explore opportunities in the US, a more amenable market for GM corn. In the meantime, illegally distributed GM corn seed continues to find its way into the hands of Chinese farmers. In December 2013, farmers in Hunan Province planted smuggled GM corn seed that was procured from a seed company in Guangdong Province. The seed company admitted smuggling more than 50 MTs of Monsanto (US) and Syngenta (Swiss) GM corn seed during the past decade via tourist couriers and import bribes. During the same month, Hainan government officials discovered and subsequently destroyed illegal GM corn trials that were taking place on the island. In late 2015, Chinese officials announced they netted 80 MTs of smuggled seeds and seedlings from law enforcement operations during March and October of that year. A large share of these seeds were smuggled in by mail and by people entering China. Lastly, in January 2016, GM corn cultivation was reportedly occurring on a large scale in Liaoning Province. These instances of illicit GM corn distribution are likely just the tip of the corn stalk, with illegal plantings potentially occurring across northeast China’s corn-belt.

GM Soybeans (Illegally Distributed)

China’s soybean market is organized such that domestically grown non-GM soybean, which is primarily consumed directly as tofu, is not mixed with foreign GM soybean varieties that flood into the country for use as cooking oil and animal feed. It is a means of market differentiation that serves to not only safeguard domestic producers, but also allay the general public’s fear that GM soybeans are not entering at the top of the food chain. This concept was put to the test in September 2015 when soybean farmers near the city of Suihua, west-central Heilongjiang province, were reportedly found growing GM soybeans. Heilongjiang Province is China’s largest soybean grower, accounting for 2.5 million ha or 27% of the country’s total sown area in 2013. This was a stark decline from the 4 million ha that was sown in 2009, a sign that Heilongjiang soybean farmers are becoming less competitive with cheaper foreign imports. Accordingly, the Suihua farmers were stated as seeking high yields to offset losses. The scope of illegal planting in Heilongjiang is unknown, but worsening asymmetries in the Chinese soybean market will likely add more pressure on soybean farmers to either plant alternative crops or seek higher yields via GM seeds.

Going Forward

From 2006 to 2020, it is estimated that China will spend CNY 20 billion (more than 3 billion USD) on GM crop research. As of early 2016, China had yet to approve a single commercially important grain or oilseed crop for mass cultivation. For rice, this reluctance is understandable owing to the grain’s status as a staple crop that generally does not undergo significant processing before being consumed. Past food scandals and the risk-adverse nature of Chinese consumers to modified foods[1] have emerged as major public relations obstacles that must be overcome before commercialization can take place. Additionally, as history as shown with Champa rice, a novel rice seed introduced into China’s countryside can potentially cause significant and unpredictable changes to the country’s political and demographic spectrum. There are simply too many unknowns at the moment to safely proceed with GM rice cultivation.  At the moment, China is choosing to adjust to production shortfalls by importing rice from Vietnam and Pakistan rather than planting high-yield GM rice.GM corn – like GM rice – is grain that remains on the brink of commercialization in China while at the same time imports pour in by the millions of metric tons. However, the reasoning behind the lack of approval for planting GM corn differs from GM rice. The first deals with the business environment of GM corn as being one of the most widely marketed GM crops in the world, whereas GM rice sales are miniscule in comparison. The well-established biotech firms of Monsanto, Syngenta, DuPont (Pioneer Hi-Bred), and Bayer CropScience have at least one GM corn trait that has been approved for import (i.e. not cultivation) by China. The global market share dominance of these Western agricultural biotech firms is such that they may be able to push out their Chinese counterparts within their own home market. The fragmented nature of China’s biotech industry is such that one company can own a GM crop variety while a different company can own the technology used to modify the crop gene, which makes GM corn approval a murky proposition.

In January 2020, the safety certificates for China’s two GM rice varieties and GM corn variety will expire once again. These safety certificates act more as “safety valves” for the Ministry of Agriculture to quickly call on GM crops to counter deep and prolonged drops in production. If the rice or corn industries suffer chronic losses that threaten the nation’s food security, then China will use GM crops to shore up its food supply. Additionally, safety certification is a way of testing the waters of GM crops, where the leakage serves to gauge their popularity, both among farmers and the population as a whole. Despite current commercial obstacles and negative public perception of GM crops within China, ChinaAg estimates that China will likely approve GM corn cultivation by 2020 based on the following reasons:

  • China will eventually have to modernize its corn industry and adopt GM technology if it hopes to wean itself off its newfound dependence on corn imports[2].
  • Future Chinese GM corn exports will very likely be accepted in the GM-friendly markets of North America and South America[3].
  • In the long run, managed risk through controlled GM corn introduction is a safer and more efficient method of production. As of early 2016, illegal GM corn planting in Liaoning Province was reportedly widespread and, if true, its dispersal throughout China’s corn-belt in the coming years is likely a forgone conclusion.

[1]In 2004, a survey of Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou residents noted a 57% disapproval rate for GM foods and only a 16% approval rate. In September 2014, China’s Ministry of Agriculture cited low approval ratings as a reason behind GM crop commercialization. A Shanghai survey noted that 80% of respondents were “very concerned” about GM foods.

[2] From 2006 to 2009, Chinese corn imports were relatively flat and ranged from 79,000 to 164,000 MTs per year. From 2010 to 2014, Chinese corn imports ranged from 1.6 million MTs to 5.2 million MTs. In 2015 (January to November only), China imported 4.6 million MTs of corn.

[3]In 2014, the USA (40.3%), Brazil (23.3%), Argentina (13.4%), Canada (6.4%), Paraguay (2.1%), and Uruguay (0.9%) accounted for 86.4% of the world’s GM farmland by area. Additionally, each of these countries cultivates at least one GM corn variety domestically.

­Monsanto in China: A Brief Timeline

2001: Hybrid corn seed joint-venture, CNSGC-Dekalb Seed, is formed by Monsanto Far East and Sinochem’s China National Seed Group Corporation (CNSGC)

2002: China issues import approval for various GM crops including Monsanto-produced GM corn, soy, and rapeseed

2004: China issues more GM import approvals including one variety of GM corn from Monsanto

2006: Sinochem becomes exclusive distributor of Monsanto’s “Roundup” products in mainland China

Jan 2008: China’s Sinochem purchases Monsanto herbicide assets in seven Asian countries

Aug 2008: CNSGC-Dekalb Seed receives increased investments to expand its hybrid corn seed business

Sept 2008: Import approval for Monsanto GM soy variety

2009: Monsanto signs research agreements with Hunan University and Huazhong Agricultural University, and opens a research center in Beijing

Sept 2011: CNSGC participates in a MOA rice and corn research lab and CNSGC-Dekalb Seed begins construction of corn seed facility in Gansu Province

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